Rekindling Connections and Global Networks for Transformative Agroecology

Ernesto Méndez, Faculty Director of the UVM Institute for Agroecology
Courtyard in the Antonio Machado campus of the International University of Andalucía, in Baeza, Spain.
It was nineteen years ago when I first stepped into the beautiful historical courtyard of International University of Andalucía’s (UNIA) Antonio Machado campus, located in the town of Baeza. The UNIA is a consortium of eight universities from the Andalucía region in southern Spain, which runs continuing and distance courses, usually developed through collaborations among the 8 institutions. At the time of my first visit, I was a graduate candidate finishing up my doctoral degree in agroecology, at the University of California, Santa Cruz, working with my mentor Stephen R. Gliessman. Steve had managed to bring half a dozen of his graduate students to help him teach and co-learn with the professors and participants of the master’s program in Agroecology: An approach for Rural Sustainability. I was very grateful for the opportunity and deeply impressed with the transdisciplinary curriculum and wide variety of backgrounds represented in the student body. It was a deep learning experience for me.
Master’s students working on their group presentations.
A few years later, as I was establishing myself as a new professor of agroecology at the University of Vermont, our collaborators, professors Manuel González de Molina (Manolo) and Gloria Guzmán Casado, from Universidad Pablo de Olavide, in Sevilla, invited me to join them to teach a similar module. Since then, the invitation is open for me to come every year, and I go as much as I can. I get a lot from engaging in this long-term collaboration. I interact with Latin American and European students from a wide diversity of backgrounds, ranging from social movement organizers and activists to policy makers and young academics. I also hone in on my teaching in Spanish and learn from diverse experiences and perspectives. This year we had students from Brazil, Colombia, Argentina, Mexico, Austria, Chile, Ecuador, Germany, Equatorial Guinea, and Spain. In addition, I interacted with four agroecological initiatives in Andalucía, as part of a field trip led by my colleague Gloria.
Concha, farmer and owner of El Cortijo del Pino, a fruit and rural tourism operation, shows students some of the traps she uses to control pests in her pears, apples, and apricots.
For this year’s module I had students use an agroecology principles framework to qualitatively characterize the initiatives we visited, which included El Cortijo del Pino, a farm and rural tourism operation; Valle y Vega, an agroecological cooperative, in the city of Granada; La Retornable, an agroecological industry focusing on local vegetable drinks served in reusable containers; and “Salvemos la Vega” a citizens advocacy group to save the agricultural heritage of la Vega de Granada. Each student group assessed the strengths and weaknesses of one of the initiatives, using agroecology principles, and presented their analysis to the rest of the class. We visited the “Vega de Granada”, a rich, fertile valley where agricultural activities increasingly compete with the urban sprawl of the nearby city of Granada, home to the famous Alhambra palace.
La Vega de Granada valley, with the Sierra Nevada mountains in the background.
With farmers, consumers and concerned citizens, we discussed the challenges that have now become a staple of our world- impacts of climate change; barriers to shorter food supply chains; and the encroachment of development on agricultural land, which in turn limits the access to farmland for young aspiring growers. One of the most exciting things that happened on this this trip was to catch up with my colleagues Manolo and Gloria. They were able to share about Alimentta, a new think tank that has recently emerged with an action agenda for sustainable food systems in Spain. In addition, and, of great relevance to our new Institute for Agroecology, were conversations about building a strong united front of like-minded academic institutions seeking to institutionalize and advance a transformative agroecology- one grounded in equity, transdisciplinary and participatory research, as well as engagement with political and structural factors. In addition to the  Laboratory of the History of Agroecosystems at Universidad Pablo de Olavide and Alimentta in Spain, the IFA is discussing collaborations with partners from around the globe, including the Center for Agroecology, Water and Resilience (CAWR) at Coventry University, and El Colegio de la Frontera Sur (ECOSUR), in Chiapas, Mexico.
Facade of the UNIA’s Antonio Machado campus in Baeza.

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